Lee Brown Coye

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Lee Brown Coye
Lee Brown Coye
Born (1907-07-24)July 24, 1907
Syracuse, New York
Died September 5, 1981(1981-09-05) (aged 74)

Lee Brown Coye (July 24, 1907 – September 5, 1981) was an American artist.

Coye is probably best remembered for his black-and-white illustrations for pulp magazines and horror fiction, but he produced a variety of works in other media.


Coye was born in Syracuse, New York, and as a young man lived in nearby Tully. He spent his entire life in the Central New York area.

He and his wife, Ruth, lived in Syracuse for many years where Coye's activities included teaching adult art classes; working under the Works Progress Administration to paint a mural in the Cazenovia High School in 1934 (since destroyed); advertising for the WSYR Broadcasting System in upstate New York, producing a variety of commissioned works.

The Coyes settled in Hamilton, New York, in 1959 when Lee went to work for Sculptura, a small company that reproduced antique sculptures. The move to Hamilton allowed Coye to fulfill his ambition of returning to a small town and maintaining his own art studio.

Coye was almost entirely self-taught as an artist, and his entire life was devoted to art-related work. As a young man, he attended one semester of night art classes, but his artistic knowledge and abilities came from many years of work and a thorough study of nature. His astute knowledge of body parts developed from his studies of anatomy and his work as a medical illustrator. He spent time attending operations and autopsies, thus becoming extremely familiar with the human body assembled or not.

Recurring motifs[edit]

One recurring feature in Coye's work is the motif of wooden sticks, often in latticework-like patterns. This was inspired by a 1938 discovery in an abandoned farmhouse.

Coye had returned to the North Pitcher, New York, area where he spent much of his childhood. While wandering deep in the woods, Coye discovered an abandoned farmhouse. Boards and pieces of wood which had been set perpendicular to one another surrounded the site. Neither inside nor out could Coye find an explanation for the presence of these crossed sticks. In the years following, Coye remained interested in the significance of his discovery.

When Coye returned to the site in 1963, there was nothing left of the building or the sticks (the area had suffered severe flooding), and he never found out why the sticks were there or who it was that had arranged them in such a manner. Because of the strangeness of the entire experience, these forms never left Coye, and they appear in many of his paintings and illustrations.

The incident also inspired Coye's friend Karl Edward Wagner to write the award-winning story "Sticks".

The crescent moon was an early Coye motif in paintings and illustrations. The whale became a later signature motif. Coye fashioned wooden sculptures, silver pendants and pins, engravings, drawings, and a large painting of the whale. One very fine example is in the Morrisville State College Library collection the 3-foot-long (0.91 m) pine "Moby-Dick" sculpture created in 1965. Image of Moby Dick Sculpture

Illustrator of the macabre[edit]

Coye's cover for the Weird Tales
Coye provided the cover for Robert Arthur's "The Mirror of Cagliostro " on the June 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories

Coye's fame as an illustrator of the macabre developed as a result of his drawings for three horror anthologies edited by August Derleth in the early 1940s, Sleep No More, Who Knocks, and The Night Side. That subsequently lead to additional work for Weird Tales, a popular pulp magazine. From 1945 to 1952, his covers and interior work captured images of horror and the supernatural. In the 1960s, Coye's work appeared in such magazines as Fantastic and Amazing.

Coye illustrated, as well as the H. P. Lovecraft collection, Three Tales of Horror, and two deluxe collections of pulp stories edited by Karl Edward Wagner and published by his imprint Carcosa : Manly Wade Wellman's Worse Things Waiting (1975) and Hugh B. Cave's Murgunstrumm and Others (1978). For his work in Worse Things Waiting, and again in 1976, Coye won the World Fantasy Award for best artist. Coye was in the midst of illustrating Cave's volume Death Stalks the Night, which would have been the fifth volume published by North Carolina publishing house Carcosa, when he suffered a crippling stroke and eventually died. The volume's editor, Karl Edward Wagner, abandoned plans to publish through Carcosa, however the volume was eventually issued, with the illustrations Coye had completed, by Fedogan and Bremer.

Other work[edit]

Although Coye is best known for his fantasy and horror illustrations, for more than fifty years his artistic output covered a much wider range. He was a watercolor, oil, and egg tempera painter, a muralist, a sculptor, a photographer, a silversmith, and an able builder of models and dioramas. From rats and beetles and disfigured bodies, to whales, mythic figures, and landscapes, Coye's subjects are as diverse as the media in which he worked. All of his work was executed with expert craftsmanship, and exhibits the originality that sprang from his renowned imagination and sense of humor. Coye created paintings, sculpture, and jewelry that are as beautiful as his illustrations are macabre. Image of Night Side cover

Coye's work is represented in numerous collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Everson Museum in Syracuse, the Onondaga County Historical Society, Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University, the Morrisville State College Library, SUNY Oswego, Syracuse University, and private collections.


This article is based on "Lee Brown Coye:Illustrator and Artist, in The Mage, Summer 1985". It is used and updated with permission of the copyright owner. Additional material is from Bill Drew.

  • Tammra Rayfield, "Lee Brown Coye: Illustrator and Artist, in The Mage, Summer 1985" with material added by Bill Drew
  • Bill Drew, Associate Librarian, Morrisville College, Morrisville, NY, interview with Lee Brown Coye

External links[edit]

  • Ortiz, Luis. Arts unknown : the life and art of Lee Brown Coye. New York : Nonstop Press, 2005.
"This is the first full biography on this uniquely macabre and eccentric artist, and it will surprise many people unaware of his fine art, book illustrations, cartoon, and sculpture credentials. More than 350 illustrations, including never-before-published art." ISBN 1-933065-04-4 More Information
An interview of Lee Brown Coye conducted by Joseph Trovato.
Coye speaks of the development of his style of painting; painting murals in Utica, New York; Thomas Hart Benton's influence on him; the importance of the Federal Art Project on his career and on the lives and work of other artists. Conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts project, which includes over 400 interviews of artists, administrators, historians, and others involved with the federal government's art programs and the activities of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.